I first encountered your work in The New Yorker in the early Sixties, but I got married anyway. Your take on marriage in Of the Farm, Couples and, of course, the Rabbit series validated my growing fear that the institution I was raised to aspire to was far from the safe haven I expected. It wasn’t as if my parents’ marriage had been blissful, but I figured they were the exception. My cool artsy husband would be different from my volatile lawyer dad, and I was nothing like my reserved and priggish mom. What could those two possibly know of love?
On our wedding day in 1962 when the rabbi solemnly proclaimed my groom, a student of architecture, to be the “architect of my destiny,” I felt a tiny twinge in my gut, but I blamed it on the August heat and the excitement of the occasion. Sadly, my gut was onto something because things went mostly downhill after that. It was only thanks to your books, especially Couples, that I knew I wasn’t alone. In Couples you dissect the marriages, mores, and misperceptions of a group of young marrieds just a bit older than we were who were tumbling in and out of what they called love with astonishing rapidity. In spite of or because of improved contraception, changing attitudes towards divorce, and the displacement of religion and its taboos by psychoanalysis, these folks were serially adulterous, duplicitous, self-deluded, and alcoholic.
Now I’d read Peyton Place as a teenager, so you weren’t the first author to bare the secrets of a community to me. What made the fictional town of Tarbox where Couples takes place and the novel itself different was twofold: the Sixties were different from the Fifties and you made Piet Hanema, the pivotal figure in Couples, not only real, but also, at times, familiar. I could identify with him even while I disapproved. And he is enviable. I envy him his insight and descriptive mastery, your descriptive mastery. To Piet, each face, conversation, sunset, and building has its own defining characteristics and no two vaginas are quite the same.
It is Piet’s endless search for unconditional love that finally destroys his marriage and breaks up his circle of enablers. The novel ends with the church in flames, couples divorcing and recoupling, the Asian scientist dying, and the Jewish couple leaving town. This dénouement seemed almost cheerful to me because the characters know a bit more about love and marriage than they did at the beginning. And a few even know more about themselves. Without self-understanding, the sexual revolution with its promise of foolproof birth control, multiple orgasms, and “free” love was wasted on us all. It took me a while to grasp that. I understood what Portnoy had to complain about, but frankly, it was, at first, hard for me to understand what made the mostly WASP couples of historical and picturesque Tarbox so miserable. I thought they were living the American Dream in lovely homes where they ate gourmet meals and played touch football like the Kennedys.
But you saw that America was changing not only in the bedroom, but also in boardrooms, offices and towns. You saw that our countryside was disappearing. In your books you chronicle the ripple effect of our natural landscape mutating from field to suburb to sprawl on those like Rabbit Angstrom and Piet Hanema. Poor Rabbit’s high school heroics on the basket ball court had not prepared him for the upheavals of the second half of the Twentieth Century any more than his memories of those glory days fortify him against his own racism, stubbornness, and overactive libido. Piet Hanema, a builder who takes pride in the houses he custom crafts, sees himself replaced by developers who mass-produce McMansions. Piet mourns what is lost even as he adapts.
Your admirable ability to capture people writhing in the throes of changes they cannot control inspired me as I wrote about my own teaching experiences in the Sixties and Bel Barrett’s in the Nineties and then again as I formulated a historical novel set in Seattle’s Jewish community during the Klondike Gold Rush and in 1965. Thank you for your incomparable books.